Alan Sillitoe: Writer celebrated for his depictions of working-class life in novels such as 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'
Wednesday 28 April 2010
In his long life, Alan Sillitoe wrote over 50 books – novels, short story collections, travel works, poetry collections, plays and screenplays – but he remained best known for his first two works: the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and the short story collection that had as its title story "The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner" (1959).
The debut novel won him the Author's Club First Novel Award; the short story collection won him the Hawthornden Prize. But the true significance of the two works came with their film adaptations, spearheading as they did a new genre in British cinema–gritty, working class, "kitchen sink" drama. The two film adaptations also, incidentally, launched the film careers of (respectively) Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
Sillitoe certainly knew the kitchen sink, and was from the working class. He was born on 4 March 1928 to Christopher Sillitoe, a labourer, and his wife Sabina. His father, like many labourers of the day, was illiterate. That was not in itself a handicap to those who worked with their hands but Sillitoe was born on the brink of the Depression.
The family were constantly moving in search of work – and to avoid the rent-collectors – but were always in the vicinity of Nottingham. Sillitoe grew up alongside two brothers and two sisters with no real ambitions. At 14 he failed the examination for grammar school but, even had he passed, it is doubtful his family would have had the money to send him.
By then – 1942 – war had broken out. Sillitoe took various labouring jobs: he worked at the Raleigh bicycle factory, in a plywood factory, then as a capstan lathe operator before becoming an air traffic control assistant. (1945-1946). He moved on in 1946 to be an RAF wireless operator with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He hoped to be a pilot, but none were required by then.
He spent the next three years in the signals corps in Malaya. Towards the end of 1949 he contracted tubercolosis and spent the next 18 months in a military hospital. There, he read everything he could lay his hands on, including Greek and Roman classics and – more importantly – Robert Tressell's 1914 masterpiece of working class life, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.
Sillitoe was inspired to become a novelist but the novel he wrote in hospital was rejected. When he was well he moved back to Nottingham with a disability pension. In 1952, in a bookshop in town, he met the aspiring American poet Ruth Fainlight. Curious as it sounds for an author who was a lead writer in what has become known as "provincial realism", Sillitoe and Fainlight spent the next six years living off his disability pension in France, Spain and Majorca. In Majorca Sillitoe fell under the influence of the poet Robert Graves, who encouraged him to turn short stories the Nottingham author had been working on into a novel.
In fact, Sillitoe's first publication, in 1957, was a collection of poetry, Without Beer or Bread. He followed it a year later with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was an immediate commercial and critical triumph. It won the Author's Club First Novel Award and Sillitoe scripted the film, that was released in 1960 to equal critical acclaim. (The stage version, first performed in 1964, was less successful.) By the time the film of Silllitoe's debut novel came out, his short story collection, led by "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner", had come out and won the Hawthornden Prize.
Sadly, as it would be for any writer, Sillitoe's subsequent fiction, prolific as he was, never achieved the popularity or commercial success of his debut novel and subsequent short story. Both works caught a mood in which young, working-class people were celebrated – in an unsentimental way - but in which the celebration was tinged by hopelessness despite their cocky rebelliousness.
In 1959 – the year of Loneliness's publication, Sillitoe had moved to London and married Fainlight. His third novel, The General, was published in 1960 but was eclipsed by the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, starring a feisty Albert Finney. (The General had a disappointing film adaptation as Counterpoint in 1967.)
Finney played Arthur Seaton, a thoughtlessly rebellious, lecherous, boozy working-class lad on the make. Sillitoe put this character to one side in Key To The Door, his 1961 autobiographical novel that followed Arthur's older brother, Brian, through his National Service in Malaya. Brian's adventures continued in The Open Door (1989). In 1961 Sillitoe, this master of provincial realism, moved to Morocco, where he wrote The Ragman's Daughter (1963), filmed quite successfully in 1973.
In the 1960s Sillitoe visited the Soviet Union on a number of occasions (recorded in 1964's Road To Volgograd and 2007's Gadfly In Russia) and critics have noted that his prolific writing output suffered from his desire to make political points. His trilogy – The Death of William Posters (1965), Tree On Fire (1967) and The Flame of Life (1974) – suffered in this way. Perhaps his most overtly political work was the screenplay for Che Guevera in 1968. But perhaps his most overtly political statement was when, in the same year, he lambasted the Soviet Writer's Union Congress in 1968 for their abuse of human rights.
By now his wife had seen her first poetry collection published and she continued to succeed as poet, short story writer, translator and librettist. Sillitoe, too, continued with a wide range of work. Although an atheist he developed an interest in Judaism and was a strong pro-Zionist.
In 1967 he had written his first novel for children – The City Adventures of Marmalade Jim – and his work for children continued to be successful. He was proud of his poetry and a number of collections followed, as did accounts of his travels around the world with his wife.
In 2001 he wrote Birthday, a sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He continued to write a range of other works thereafter but – perhaps frustratingly for him – remained best known as a provincial realist who, he said, "strove to explain the complications of the human soul with a simplicity that can be universally understood."
For all that, he remained drawn to his technical know-how. He kept a radio transmitter at home to tune into foreign stations and when promoting Gadfly In Russia at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years ago, turned up with his morse code set to show that, 60-odd years on, he hadn't lost the knack. Actually, although his later books were often ignored, he never lost the knack.
Alan Sillitoe, writer: born Nottingham 4 March 1928; married 1959 Ruth Fanlight (one son, one daughter); died London 25 April 2010.
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